Food 22 May 2024 6 MIN

Warning: Dietary advice on social media can lead to food anxiety

A culinary whistleblower explains why he is done with food scaremongering

A few months ago, I received a private message from a young mother who asked me if it was okay to pack a sandwich for her 10-year-old for school. You know, like how many mothers around the world have been doing for the last few centuries. When I asked her why she thought that would even be a problem in the first place, she sent me several links to Instagram reels that painted maida (refined flour) as a diabolical Bond villain, something that will stick to your gut like extra strong Fevicol, and that so-called “bleached” white bread is brimming with “toxic chemicals” (a catch-all term for preservatives), emulsifiers, and additives whose very presence in your home will stop the production of insulin in your pancreas.  
If you get your diet and nutrition advice from social media influencers, you start to believe that the only way to eat healthy is to buy organic, non-GMO, ancient grains, legumes and vegetables, cook them only in artisanal, cold-pressed oils or ₹5,000 A2 ghee, without letting them touch a non-stick pan, microwave, air fryer, or pressure cooker, and to then make sure to consume them within three hours of cooking (because fridges are evil and you must never store food in them). Even while you eat, you must remember that your vegetables are likely laced with pesticides, your oils contaminated with hexane, and everything is most probably giving you cancer. Apparently only our cave-dwelling ancestors had access to nutritious food. If you dare to consume food that’s easily available or use an appliance that makes your life even slightly convenient, you’re condemning yourself and your entire family to a slow and painful death.  
Thanks to mobile phones and ubiquitous 4G, we’re exposed to a relentless barrage of pseudoscientific, cherry-picked, weapons-grade scaremongering bullshit all the time. Whenever you browse the web for recipe inspirations, the algorithm will undoubtedly pull up a seizure-inducing 90-second production, reminiscent of a Ramsay Brothers horror film, that suggests that the grapes you’re packing in your child’s tiffin box are likely soaked in carcinogenic pesticides. Social media algorithms value engagement over anything else and nothing engages better than fear, so like peri peri flavour in street food, every piece of food-related content today is seasoned with a generous sprinkling of scaremongering. The results are not pretty. Social media has taken a toll on mental health globally and in India; on top of all the political polarisation and fake news, food anxiety is the cherry atop this apocalyptic cake of doom (made from bleached, diabetes-inducing, gut-sticking maida).  

Social media algorithms value engagement over anything else and nothing engages better than fear, so like peri peri flavour in street food, every piece of food-related content today is seasoned with a generous sprinkling of scaremongering.

The foundational sin is the short video format of 60-90 seconds. Most nuanced knowledge cannot be delivered in that duration of time. Complicated relationships and confounding factors cannot be elucidated in the time it takes to swipe your thumb across a smartphone screen. So content creators choose to deconstruct food down to its ingredients and then demonise them by picking the absolute worst thing that could theoretically happen. “You had a biscuit? Did you know that it contains palm oil, which is not only leading to deforestation in the Amazonian rainforest, but it contains saturated fat that can stop your heart in an instant?” That is a viral reel. But saying  “Palm oil is just another oil, and it is low-cost and has a long shelf life, and as long as you eat biscuits and snacks in moderation and have an overall healthy diet, you will be fine. Even ghee, coconut oil, and butter are saturated fats, so calm down about palm oil” is not viral material.  
Admittedly, many influencers caution against the environmental impact of the palm oil industry rather than the oil itself—but even so, experts have stated time and again that boycotting palm oil is not the solution. Instead, before purchasing a product that contains palm oil, you might want to use a palm oil scorecard like this one to assess how sustainably the oil was sourced. 
There is another insidious side effect to this food freaking phenomenon. By painting single ingredients as potential threats, you are left with a false sense of confidence that just eliminating *insert maida/white sugar/vegetable oil/ iodised salt here* from your life gives you the licence to eat pretty much anything else without addressing the real elephant in the room—an overall carb-heavy, imbalanced diet and not enough physical activity. Social media distorts your ability to prioritise things by painting everything as being equally scary and important (because the end goal, of course, is that you like, share, and subscribe), but if everything is important, nothing is important.  
The fundamental truth about food is that almost everything is okay in moderation and almost everything is unhealthy in excess. And it’s not like we don’t know this. A variant of this statement is a well-known proverb in almost every Indian language, but what most people—particularly young mothers like the one that reached out to me—cannot deal with is the persuasive power of a slickly produced fearmongering video guilt-tripping viewers about the food choices they make for their families. Another problematic consequence of this culture of villainisation is that small retailers—your local corner shop, for example—who don’t have the means or know-how to market their products as ‘healthy’ end up losing business, while big businesses make a killing off glossy green ‘superfood’ packaging, even though the foods themselves aren’t necessarily healthier. My advice is: put your phone down, rest assured that the foods our parents and grandparents ate isn’t going to kill you, and enjoy your meal. Your food label anxiety is probably taking a bigger toll on your health than that sandwich ever will.